Sunday, 24 November 2013

Schoolies Festival 2013: My experience at Victor Harbor, South Australia

If you read my Facebook or Twitter posts over the weekend you would have seen that I attended the Schoolies Festival 2013 at Victor Harbor, SA as a VIP Guest and had been invited by Encounter Youth, the organisation that puts on the event in that state. When they first offered me the opportunity there was a part of me that hesitated - was this really a place for a man of my age to attend (apparently we're called 'droolies' - over 25s who attend Schoolies!) and would I be intruding on what really is a young person's event? When I was told that they run a VIP Tour for sponsors and other interested parties prior to the evening starting to show how the weekend festival is organised and rolled out, I knew I had to be a part of it!

Before I go on it is important to let you know who Encounter Youth actually is ... this is how they describe themselves on their website:

"Encounter Youth is a faith based, non-profit charity, who respond to community needs because of the challenges and teachings of Jesus Christ. We serve people from all walks of life, no matter their spiritual, political or ethnic background. We want to see a positive development of social and community welfare! Encounter Youth is committed to the health and well-being of South Australian communities and it's young people."

There are a number of activities that they are involved in, including providing alcohol and other drug education sessions in SA schools, but the Schoolies Festival is by far their largest and most visible activity.
Let's make it clear - I am not a particularly religious person and usually the easiest way to put me off anything is to say that it has some connection to a religious group. That said, I have had regular contact with Encounter Youth for quite a while now and I have been nothing but impressed by their commitment to young people and their passion for making sure adolescents are supported and kept as safe as possible, without ever pushing their own beliefs on anyone. They truly are an amazing group of people who I admire greatly!
For those of you who don't live in SA, Year 12s in that state have been travelling to Victor Harbor for their 'Schoolies' celebrations for many years. Fifteen years ago Encounter Youth became involved in the event. At that time the town was experiencing great problems with visiting schoolies - antisocial behaviour and violence were commonplace and young visitors to this quiet beachside town were wandering the streets with nothing much to do. Since that time Encounter Youth have built up an event that is truly world-class, enabling those attending to have a safe and positive experience, and at the same time, protecting residents of the town from being adversely affected by the influx of young partygoers.
So what was my experience like?
When I arrived in Victor Harbor I was taken to where the VIP Tour would begin. There were a range of adults on the tour - sponsors, Victor Harbor Council members (including the Mayor), some fairly high ranking police officers and others. We were put onto a large bus and taken to a number of different sites. Our first stop was a caravan park (unlike other Schoolies destinations, Victor Harbor does not have a great deal of large hotels and most young visitors stay in camping grounds - when I tell Year 12s in other states that, they almost pass out!) where the owner/manager described his 9 years of working with schoolies and how they operate and work with Encounter Youth to keep the young people as safe as possible.
It was here that we first met Green Team members - a group of Christian volunteers from across SA that are there to help, support and just 'be there' for the thousands of Year 12s attending Schoolies. As it says on their website:
"We’re there early setting up tents and stages... We are in your caravan parks taking care of you... We ride the buses with you... We entertain you while you're waiting in line...  We roam around making sure you’re safe… We call ‘000’ when you need us to… We walk you home or to your car… We prepare all year round, and come from all over the state just so we can hang out with you, and keep you safe while you have a good time. And we do it for free."
Actually these guys pay to be a member of the Green Team! That's right they pay to volunteer to look after schoolies ... they are truly unbelievable! This team of young people is what really makes this Schoolies Festival so unique - I don't know of anywhere else (and I have worked the Gold Coast Schoolies and visited Byron during the same period) where this type of team exists. There are so many of them (all dressed in the brightest green you have ever seen) and they just set 'a tone' - I don't really know how else to say it - you just feel as though you are in a supported environment. As someone said the next morning - someone really should drug-test the Green Team - they truly are the happiest group of people I've ever seen! 
After meeting and talking to some Green Team members - teams are based at most of the caravan parks and hotels where schoolies are staying - we moved to where the Festival actually takes place. We were taken through the whole process - from being told we were on one of the many buses that ferry partygoers from their accommodation to the site from the beginning of the night to the early hours of the morning through to being shown how they monitor how many volunteers they have on site at any time. We were taken through the range of dance tents, recovery and rest areas available and informed about the 'Battle of the Bands' event that they run across the three nights of the Festival.
Over the past 25 years I have worked at a range of dance events and I have to say that I was incredibly impressed with what I saw. My specialty area is 'alcohol and other drug safety' and police liaison and what has always worried me about Schoolies' events is that because you are dealing with such young, and often na├»ve, people the risks are so much greater. Encounter Youth had done a great job!
As far as I am aware I was the only tour member who actually attended the actual Schoolies event later that evening and I am so glad I did! I was with one of the organisers when they received a text message to say that almost 5000 young people had been through the door and it certainly looked like there were that many there - the place was pumping! The kids were going off! Different areas offered different styles of music (to a point) and what made it so special for me was the number of Year 12s from different schools I visit across SA who ran up to me, called out my name and the like, just to tell me that they were being safe and looking after each other ... it was incredible!
It is a dry event and so no alcohol is available (even though the majority of SA Year 12s would actually be 18) and it would be safe to assume that many of attending would have preloaded (drank alcohol beforehand) to some extent. Did I see drunk young people? Absolutely! Was it even close to what I see when I walk down George St in the centre of Sydney on a Saturday night to see a movie? Absolutely not! Did I see young people that I thought were drug-affected? Yes, without a doubt ... but once again, nowhere near the extent to what I would see on a weekend at any nightclub or dance event anywhere across the country ...
There are only three 'formal' Schoolies Week events put on across the country - two of those are fully or partly-funded by governments due to the fact that their Year 12s are a year younger than those in other states (WA and Queensland). SA is the only state where Schoolies is run by a private organisation and Encounter Youth should be commended for their efforts. Very few SA students opt to travel overseas (a potentially dangerous trend that we see in other states, particularly in NSW and Victoria where nothing is provided), instead choosing to travel to a venue in their own state (usually for a weekend instead of a full week) which is controlled and organised by wonderful people who are committed to keep our kids as safe as possible. SA parents should thank their lucky stars that Encounter Youth and their volunteers continue to do what they do ...
When I left Victor Harbor yesterday I told the organisers that I would love to be asked back - perhaps this time as a full-on volunteer - it really was that great an experience!  

Saturday, 9 November 2013

They're just doing what we did: Are young risky drinkers really drinking like their parents did?

One of my favourite lines from a parent usually comes up when they approach me after a Parent Information Evening. They start by thanking me for the talk and then the conversation wanders a bit and you can tell there is something they want to get off their chest ... there was something about what I said that they didn't agree with. You can almost see it bubbling up inside them ... the desperate need to say, "but they're only doing what we did!"

Now I have always made it very clear that I didn't drink alcohol as a teenager, it simply wasn't a part of what my social group at school did. Adding to that was the fact that neither of parents ever really drank and I honestly can't remember ever seeing a bottle or can of any alcohol in our family home at anytime, apart from when they held a party or barbeque at home for their group of friends (and even then I don't think I ever saw any real excessive drinking). It simply wasn't a part of my life! Now I know that this isn't the norm - all the evidence shows that alcohol is clearly a part of most young people's lives, as it was for their parents and even for many of their grandparents to some extent - that said, this belief that today's young people are simply doing what they did needs to be challenged.

Firstly, let's make sure we clear up who I'm going to be talking about in this piece ... Let's not forget that not all young people are the same. Even when it comes to alcohol use, you quickly realize that young people are not one homogenous group. Basically you can break teenagers into three key categories, firstly we have the abstainers. When you look at the most recent Australian Secondary School Alcohol and Drug (ASSAD) Survey, one third of 17 year olds classify themselves as 'non-drinkers', with just over 40% of 16 year olds reporting that they don't drink. We rarely speak about these young people and their decision; in fact we completely ignore them, making them feel even more alienated than they already feel within their peer group.

The next group comprises the ones who drink responsibly. They don't drink regularly and when they do they usually consume a small amount. This does not mean there are no risks involved in their drinking behaviour, but we do need to acknowledge that these young people are trying to do 'the right thing'.

The final group is the one that I want to talk about - those that drink in a 'risky way' - they're the loudest and the most obvious of the three, and they certainly get the most media attention but the evidence suggests that they are a shrinking group, as you can see in the two graphs below that show the number of 12-15 year old 'current drinkers' (those that drank alcohol in the previous week) from 1984-2011 and the same data for 16-17 year olds.

Even though they are not as large a group as they once were (these graphs show that clearly), other data shows that this risky group appear to be drinking at much riskier levels than in the past, are doing so at a younger age and it is what they are drinking that is so concerning - we now have a generation of spirit drinkers.

When I speak to parents who did drink in their teens, their memory of their first alcohol experience is usually in a park, squatting behind a tree with a few friends knocking back a 'box of wine'! It was experimental, they had no idea what they were doing and were usually pretty terrified through the whole experience. They had to get someone to buy the alcohol, they had to find the money to pay for it (or they stole it from their parents) and, as a result, they usually didn't have very much alcohol - even the cheap stuff was relatively expensive if you had to find the money yourself ...

Most of the young people today are not drinking in parks (although that does happen of course) and they are not having to find the money for alcohol themselves - many of them are drinking at teenage parties and are being provided a couple of bottles by their parents. I truly believe that many parents think they are doing the 'right thing' - their memory of drinking in a park is frightening and they worry that if their teen does the same they will be at great risk. But think about it for five seconds and you realize that a teenage party is just as dangerous, maybe even more so, than a park. At least in a park your senses are heightened - it's not a nice place, you certainly don't want to hand around there for very long and there is always the fear that you could be caught. There is no fear at a teenage gathering and as I often say, almost every adolescent alcohol death I have been involved with over the past 20 years occurred at a party where alcohol was either provided or tolerated ...

There is also the belief that they won't drink as much if they're under 'adult supervision'. The ASSAD Survey blows this out of the water when you look at the risky drinkers. The graph below shows the average number of drinks consumed by current drinkers, many of whom reported that they drank under adult supervision. Almost seven standard drinks (5.7) were consumed on average by 15 year old young men, with 9.5 drinks being reported by 17 year old males.

But it is the spirit consumption that concerns me the most - I have raised this issue many times before so I won't harp on about it again - but I don't care who you are (unless you are a parent in their mid to late 20s and you were the first generation to kick this trend off - shame on you!), you would have been an unusual teen if you were drinking spirits (or even spirit-based drinks) weekly or fortnightly in your mid to late teens. Beer and wine-based drinks were the preferred forms of alcohol in the past (although blackberry nip keeps getting brought up by mothers remembering their past indiscretions!) - spirits were simply too expensive and not something that was even attractive to the average adolescent.

So many of our young people are trying to do the right thing and there are some very encouraging signs in terms of the growing number of 'non drinkers' amongst our teens, as well as smaller numbers at the risky end. That said, it isn't helpful when we have parents who dismiss the underage drinking issue by responding to calls for changes to be made around alcohol laws and the availability and sale of alcohol products by making ridiculous statements like "they're just doing what we did!" It's not the truth when it comes to the 'pointy end' of the market and it's simply not helpful.

Sunday, 3 November 2013

Would you ever consider hosting a teenage party? If so, is there anything you can do to keep it as safe as possible?

This week a letter was published in the UK's Guardian newspaper by 16 year old Lizzie Deane. The letter was written in response to the national coverage that a daughter of an owner of a centuries-old British stately home recently received after she issued an open apology for throwing an 18th birthday party for a friend, disturbing nearby residents who claim the music went on all night. Lizze's letter is printed under the title - Teenagers will have rowdy, drunken parties. So why not let them? Take a read - it's an interesting perspective and she certainly raises some valid points (although I challenge some of her 'universal statements' - "Teenagers get drunk" - some do, not all!) particularly around parents having more control when they're actually involved in the process ...

Letting a teenager have a party provides parents with leverage, more control over guests, timings and whatever else: it may be a risk but it's either that or waiting until you are "out" or, even better, "away".

My favourite section of the letter though is her observations around 'parental supervision' at parties - it's priceless!

If parents decide they want to "supervise" – and I have to say, it doesn't happen often – they tend to hide. No, cower. They slope off to the deepest, darkest corner of a bedroom somewhere, preferably as many floors up as the size of their house allows, and take refuge under a duvet with plenty of red wine. As they quiver with fear, they try to let the soothing sounds of David Attenborough drown out the relentless beat below them. The brave among them may chance a scurry to the loo, but only the downright deranged dare to enter the throng – few escape with their lives, let alone their minds.

I get it - holding a party for teenagers, whether it be at your home or somewhere you have hired for the evening, is a huge responsibility. Most parents I meet would not even consider ever hosting a party for their adolescent child - the media coverage of parties and gatherings getting totally out of control and becoming an alcohol-fuelled orgy of violence and mayhem is enough to put any reasonably sane parent off ever staging such an event - but the reality is, someone has to! Most of us went to parties on Saturday nights and our kids need them as well, if for no other reason they provide valuable opportunities for young people to socialize in a different environment to that of school. If you are considering holding a teenage party remember that it can also be a great opportunity for you to strengthen your relationship with your child, get to know their friends and become more involved in their life.

Over the years I have worked with many promoters to help them run dance events at nightclubs or festivals. Although these people often get a lot of bad publicity, in my experience most of them work extremely hard to try to provide a safe environment for their clientele. They have no choice, they operate under a microscope with the media keen to pounce on them if they don’t do the right thing. They simply would not be allowed to run an event unless they followed some basic rules. This usually involves liquor licensing procedures, a whole range of safety rules involving fire and law enforcement requirements, as well as a whole pile of others including security and medical provision. Many of them do much more than the basic standards asked of them because they want to do the right thing and look after the people attending their events. 

Parents holding a party for teenagers need to think in a similar way. You are providing an environment for a group of young people to get together and have a good time. Things can go wrong. You need to think about all the possible risks and put things into place to make sure that the party is as safe as possible – for the people coming to the party, your neighbours and of course, you and your family. Of course there are no guarantees. No matter what safeguards you put into place there is always the possibility that something could go wrong. However, the greater the planning, the more likely it is that things will run smoothly. Like anything, put a little effort into the organization and it is likely to reap rewards in the long-term.

It is also extremely important to involve your child in the planning of the party. You can bet that they will have a long list of requirements for what makes a successful evening and together you will need to make many decisions about a wide range of issues, including the provision of alcohol. As much as it is important to have your child's input so that the party can be successful, it is also helpful for your child to be aware of all the planning and hard work that needs to be done to ensure that the night runs smoothly. They are then much more likely to appreciate the efforts that have been made by all involved and work co-operatively to resolve challenging issues. As much as your child will benefit from the socializing aspect of attending a party with their friends, they will also learn a great deal by helping in putting an event together.

Some of the decisions that should be made with your child include the following:

What food will be available? Food is incredibly important to have at any party, particularly if alcohol is going to be served. It slows down the amount of alcohol people drink but you need to be very careful about having too much salty food which could make people more thirsty and then likely to drink more. Your child is more likely to know what food is 'socially acceptable' to the current generation of young people and will be of great assistance here.

Will alcohol be allowed (if there are over 18s attending) or 'tolerated' (if not) and who will serve it if it is? This one is definitely going to be the tough one for most families. If you do make the decision to serve alcohol, how are you going to deal with the issue of your underage guests, remembering the legal issues around providing alcohol to minors? If a parent contacts you to ask you about alcohol are you prepared to defend your decision? Does your child understand the risks involved? Is there going to be a 'free-for-all', i.e., are people going to be able to bring their own and then get their own alcohol whenever they want or will there be someone serving alcohol, monitoring how much people are drinking?

If you decide on an alcohol-free party, how will you handle guests who turn up with alcohol? Once again, this will be a difficult one for parents and teenage children to negotiate. Your child will undoubtedly not want to be embarrassed by one of their parents taking alcohol off their friends if they arrive with a bottle. If a decision to make a party alcohol-free is made then a solution to this sort of problem needs to be negotiated carefully beforehand. Simply turning a guest away from the party is not a good option. You do not know whether the young person has been dropped off at your home by their parent and how they're getting home – maybe they are returning in a few hours. Sending them off into the night with a bottle of something is irresponsible and dangerous. Discuss this with your teenager and see if you can come up with some ideas for dealing with this problem together (I have to say that I am constantly amazed at some of the really thoughtful and considered ideas young people come up with around this issue). 

How will you handle gatecrashers? Gatecrashers are now a fact of life at teenage parties, particularly if you are providing alcohol. In the age of Facebook, Twitter, mobile phones and SMS messaging it doesn't take long for the word to get out that there is a party happening and that it is the place to be. Will you be handing out invitations to those people who you want to come or will you have a guest list? Will you be hiring security to manage the party or do you have a couple of burly relatives that can handle a difficult situation? What responsibility will your teenager have in looking after the door, particularly considering that they are more likely to know who was invited and who wasn't? 

What will you do in an emergency? The best planned parties could end up finding themselves trying to handle an emergency of some description. This does not have to be related to alcohol – when a group of people get together, no matter what their age, things can go wrong. Who will be the contact person whose responsibility it will be should something go wrong? Who will make the list of emergency numbers and where will it be kept? Discuss with your teenager the necessity to register your party with the local police and why it is so important. When you do register your party, make sure you do it together so that they can see and understand the process.

How will the guests be getting home and what time will the party be finishing? Unbelievably, this is one aspect of a hosting a teenage party that many parents forget about. It is undoubtedly one of the most difficult to police but it needs to be discussed with your child so that they understand the huge responsibility you have taken on. There is no way that you are able to know how each and every guest attending the party is getting home but if something happens to any of those young people when they leave your home, particularly if they have been drinking, it would be difficult to live with yourself. Stress the importance of having a strict finishing time for the party and advertise that time widely. This will ensure that as many parents as possible know the time and are aware that after that time their children will be asked to leave your home. Hopefully this will reduce the number of teenagers spilling out onto the street and into the parks and other public spaces in your local area after the party has finished.

Over the years I have had many parents eager to tell me their success stories when it comes to holding teenage parties. Most of these have involved the decision not to serve alcohol to those underage and not to tolerate any alcohol being brought into the event. Once that decision has been made and the young person has understood and accepted it, the night is usually successful and runs without incident (also, those whose only intent is to get as drunk as possible don't want to attend gatherings where they know alcohol rules will be policed).

I can definitely understand some of the arguments that some parents use when they agree to provide or tolerate alcohol at teenage parties, particularly if they are hosting events for those young people who are close to the legal drinking age. However, many of the arguments put forward simply don’t hold up under scrutiny. Possibly one of the most ridiculous is the one where parents say that they are simply providing a 'safe environment' in which their teenager can drink and that if they didn't their child would simply go off and drink somewhere else unsupervised. What absolute garbage!

If you want to provide your child alcohol in your home with a family meal or even at a family get together, that is your choice as a parent. But providing (or even tolerating or 'turning a blind eye' to) alcohol at a teenage party is very different.

There is no handbook on how to be the perfect parent, you can only do the best you can do at the time. The same is true when it comes to holding an incident-free teenage party. There are definitely some guidelines that you can follow, some of which have been already outlined. Without doubt the best thing you can do to reduce risk is to make the event alcohol-free. If you believe that this is not an option for your child and their stage of development, make sure you take every precaution to make the party as safe as possible for all concerned and don't be the parent that Lizzie so beautifully described - cowering "in the deepest, darkest corner of a bedroom somewhere, preferably as many floors up as the size of their house allows, and take refuge under a duvet with plenty of red wine."